Monday, May 23, 2011

What next for Birmingham City?

As part two of a three-part series, we investigate what the best options are for the relegated clubs to bounce straight back into the Premiership.

Sort out the Finances.
This is a tough one to figure and has overarching ramifications for everything that follows. Apparently Carson Yeung has had to sell shares in order to finance the club's expenditures this year and his - and the entire club's - financial footing has been called into question. Without the megabucks Premiership TV revenue and the increased costs of a Europa League campaign which really doesn't offer much in prize money, the club's finances only get murkier. This, of course, is much easier said than done.

Keep Alex McLeish.
Say what you will about his ability to direct an offense, Alex McLeish can really coach defensively. He escaped the Championship at the first attempt after relegation in 2008 with a less capable group of players and, finances notwithstanding, he can be confident that this squad would be the Championship's most defensively sound. He's a reasonably popular media man and after masterminding the club's Carling Cup win, he deserves the chance to lead the Brum into Europe, where he has experience after his time at Rangers.

Remove the big-salaried players.
Rather than throw good money after bad, let them walk for free if it frees the wage budget. That means you, Nikola Zigic. Central midfield duo Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer are amongst the Blues' highest paid players, but come with considerable downsides - neither has the legs any more to even do a convincing impression of a box-to-box midfielder. Their best days are past: if at all possible, retire Ferguson to Scotland and send Bowyer packing (as has been promised).

If possible, find ways to keep: Roger Johnson, Scott Dann and Ben Foster.
Granted, all three may want to leave for pastures Premiership. Try to sell them on a Europa League campaign which Birmingham may do quite well in. If they still value EPL status, sell the most profitable/highest salaried of Johnson or Dann and use Curtis Davies as his replacement. Foster, though a very good goalkeeper, These players, surrounded by above-average fullbacks like Stephen Carr, would form the cornerstone of a nigh-on impenetrable Championship - and possible Europa League - defence. Colin Doyle and Phillips contemporary Maik Taylor are good Championship level custodians, meaning Foster is perhaps more replaceable than the centre-backs.
Admittedly, given the expensive contracts doled out to these key players, this could again prove easier said than done.
Get healthy.
The Brummie nation lost several games to injury this year with James McFadden, Scott Dann, Cameron Jerome and Zigic among the worst hit. If that foursome played more often, it's likely they would have mustered either the goals or, at worst, the goal difference to remain in the Premiership. Trainers can make a difference, so keeping your best players healthy means for a much easier route back to the Premier League.

Adequately replace Sebastian Larsson.
Larsson is gone - G-A-W-N. After stalling for months on signing a new contract, being dangled unceremoniously to Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, the man who looks more Swedish than IKEA has made it plain he won't be back at St Andrews. He's been key for the Blues on the right of midfield and will want to stay in the Premiership.
Likely replacements from the second tier could include former loanee Scott Sinclair (though they'd have to pay to get him from Swansea, and only if they don't seal promotion), Reading's Jimmy Kebe (the same applies) or even Leeds' Robert Snodgrass. Given McLeish's preference for experience over youth, expect them to target older Premiership targets such as Ricardo Gardner, Brett Emerton or Bjorn Helge Riise.
Given much of their game is built around scoring from set pieces, acquiring someone with dead-ball magic is of the utmost priority.

Reinforce the strikers with top-level Championship talent.
It's no secret the Brummies have struggled in front of goal for three four the best part of 25 years now. Their goals scored has declined over their past three Premiership stints from 46 to 38 and finally this year, 37. Their intervening spell in the Championship (2008-09), they only mustered 54 goals, an average of 1.2. Cameron Jerome doesn't score, Kevin Phillips is ageing faster than Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and this year's big acquisition Nikola Zigic had the season from hell. They score less often than Urkel at a Supermodel convention.
The Championship has plenty of striking options where the Blues could take advantage. Billy Sharp, Kris Boyd and Scott McDonald all have the ability to tinkle the twines, if not necessarily add much to lead-up play. They're all worth an inquiry. If the price is right, Everton may be persuaded to part with Jermaine Beckford, James Vaughan or Yakubu.

Chase the Europa League
You only get the chance to play in Europe so often, so to simply disregard that opportunity in favour of an instant Premiership return seems foolhardy from afar. Understandably their priority should be regaining their top flight status, but it's also worth rewarding the fans with trips to Podgorica, Belgrade, Split or St Etienne. By chasing the Europa League, you also send a message to potential wantaways like Foster, Johnson, Dann and (crucially) Craig Gardner that the club has ambition, if not necessarily the finances to currently fuel it.

Image of Sebastian Larsson courtesy:
Image of Alex McLeish courtesy:

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